God’s Tough Love
Topic: Expository Passage: Judges 2:6–3:4
One of the joys I had while doing youth ministry is that I often got to watch powerful demonstrations of parental love even when it was hard and painful. In particular, parents have an indescribable love for their kids, but teenagers don’t always return that love. Sometimes they even resist that love in harsh and nasty ways.
For example, I’ve seen parents who have faithfully loved and served their kids for years, and they have set up reasonable boundaries to protect their kids and guide them in a good path, but the teenager doesn’t see it; instead, he barks at his parents and pressures them to back down. And mom and dad are left with a choice. They can selfishly cave to their kids so that the home will be peaceful, or they can really love their kids and pursue what is best for them even if the teen doesn’t understand and even if it makes life hard.
It’s a powerful to watch a parent demonstrate this sort of faithful, tough love that says, “I love you, and I will not back down from that love no matter how much it hurts because I only care about what’s best for you.”
And in the text before us today we see that God’s loyal, tough love is the backbone of Judges, and thankfully it is the backbone of God’s love for us also. And so I trust that as we study this passage, we will gain new perspective on God’s steadfast love that will inform our perspective on all of Judges and that we will praise the Lord for how he displays the same love for us (read).
Like Judges 1:1, 2:6 takes us back to the death of Joshua. This is because Judges 1 gives us a wide-angle picture of Israel’s military failure after Joshua’s death. It tells us what happened. And then Judges 2:6–3:4 starts again with Joshua’s death and gives a theological explanation of Israel’s rebellion and God’s response.
In so doing, the author gives us a window into the rebellion that plagued Israel throughout Judges, but he also prepares the way for God’s tough love that drives the entire book. Therefore, this is a very important section to understanding Judges, and it’s also a powerful window into the character of our God and his dealings with us. With that in mind, let’s dive into the text beginning with vv. 6–10, which describe…
I. Israel’s Spiritual Collapse (vv. 6–10)
Verse 6 takes us back to Joshua 23–24, which tell us that before Joshua died, he called the tribes together and gave one last speech. He challenged them to serve the Lord and drive out the Canaanites, and then he sent them home to take their inheritance. And we see that…
God blessed as Israel obeyed (vv. 6–9). The implication of v. 6 is that they obeyed Joshua and drove out the Canaanites. And v. 7 states that Joshua’s generation, which had seen God part the Jordan River, knock down the walls of Jericho, and perform many other miraculous deeds, served the Lord until their death. And the implication is that God also remained faithful and blessed them economically and militarily.
And 8–9 zero in on Joshua’s blessing. Joshua was “the servant of the Lord,” who had a faithful testimony over decades and who provided strong spiritual leadership.
As a result, God blessed him with long life, since he lived to be 110 years old. He also received his own inheritance. And finally, he was blessed with a peaceful death and burial on his inheritance. These things might not seem like a big deal to us, but chapter 1 said that many of the tribes struggled to achieve these blessings. Therefore, they are a symbol of how God blessed Joshua’s obedience.
Therefore, our text opens by highlighting how Joshua and his generation obeyed the Lord, and God blessed just as he promised. But sadly, their pattern did not continue. Verse 10 says that…
The next generation despised and rejected their spiritual heritage (v. 10). Israel’s spiritual downfall happened shockingly fast. In contrast to the previous generation who served the Lord faithfully, their children did not “know the Lord,” and neither did they appreciate the incredible works God had done for their parents. Therefore, the spiritual heritage that Israel had begun to build under Moses and Joshua vanished in a single generation.
It’s sobering and sad, and as a pastor and parent, I can’t help but ask what went wrong? After all God had clearly told Israel how important it was that they taught the next generation. God commanded Israel in Deuteronomy 6:6–9, “These words which I command you today shall be in your heart.You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
Teaching the next generation was a high priority, but somehow it didn’t happen. Maybe they were too busy conquering lands and establishing cities to stop and teach. Maybe they just assumed their kids would embrace the faith. Regardless, it’s a reminder that we need to pray for the next generation, and we need to diligently pass our faith along. Of course that’s important for parents, but all of us ought to share the burden of discipling children.
And so while vv. 6–10 start with such promise, they end with an ominous note that signals the beginning of a terrible downward spiral. Verses 11–15 then describe…
II. Israel’s Rebellion and God’s Jealousy (vv. 11–15)
Verses 11–13 tell the tragedy of Israel’s rebellion. And notice that the narrator views their rebellion as treason against their covenant God. They didn’t just abandon a god; they abandoned “the Lord God of their fathers” who pledged himself to Israel centuries earlier when he made a covenant with Abraham.
Not only that God had proven his power and faithfulness by bringing Israel out of Egypt. Therefore God absolutely deserved their devotion and confidence. But as is always the case, sin never makes logical sense. But logic often doesn’t stop us, and it didn’t stop this generation either.
Therefore, vv. 11–13 detail how Israel forsook the Lord for idols. Notice the verbs the narrator uses to describe Israel’s treason. They “did evil in the sight of the Lord” and “served the Baals,” or false gods. Verse 12 says they “forsook (i.e., abandoned) the Lord” and instead “followed other gods” and “bowed down to them.” As a result, they “provoked the Lord to anger.” And v. 13 reiterates that they “forsook the Lord” to “serve” Baal and Ashtoreth.
It’s truly remarkable how Israel spat in the face of the God who had done so much for them. The sound like bratty teenagers don’t they? Maybe you can identify with the frustration of being in God’s position. You have bent over backwards to love and to serve someone only to have throw it back in your face. It’s a lonely feeling when all you have done is love and serve, as God had done.
This leaves us wondering why? After all that God had done for Israel, why would they so quickly abandon the Lord for Baal and Ashtoreth? The answer begins with the fact that Canaanite peoples considered Baal to be the god of the storm, so it was Baal who supposedly caused the rain to fall and thereby brought a good harvest. Since agricultural productivity was so vital to a prosperous society, the Jews were naturally drawn to a religion that promised prosperity. You could say that Baal worship was like the prosperity gospel of Canaan. We see today how attracted people are to a gospel that promises prosperity and makes you feel good about yourself.
Beyond that, Baal offered mankind the opportunity to manipulate him in a way that our sovereign God does not. Our God declares that he is all-wise, and that we must trust his perfect purpose in good times and bad, but Baal offered his worshippers the opportunity to manipulate him into doing what they wanted through certain rituals. And again, the heart of sinners naturally clings to a god that will bend to my will requiring that I submit to his. Again, think of a teenager who foolishly wants a parent he can manipulate.
And the means by which the Canaanites tried to manipulate Baal made him very attractive to sinners. Astarte (or the plural form Ashtaroth) was Baal’s female partner, and the Canaanites believed that Baal and Astarte made the land fertile by having sex and that they could manipulate them into having more sex by themselves having sex with temple prostitutes. Therefore, the Canaanite men could “worship” Baal by gratifying their sexual passion.
Talk about having your cake and eating it too. To perverted sinners, Baal worship looked a lot more attractive than the high and holy worship God established in the tabernacle.
Isn’t it ironic how little things have changed? So much of modern worship, even supposedly “Christian” worship is built on manipulating God to do my will and on satisfying my pleasure. But we need to remember that our God is holy and sovereign and that our ultimate good is found in pursuing his pleasure, not in pursuing my selfish passions. But Israel missed this; therefore, 14 –15 describe…
God’s Jealous Response (vv. 14–15): These verses describe how God turned against Israel and judged them for turning to idols, but it’s important to note that this judgment was not the irrational rage of an insecure lover. Rather, v. 15 ends by noting that God did exactly what he had warned Israel he would do if they forsook him. God’s anger was just.
Not only that, it was rooted in his covenantal relationship with Israel. Verse 15 says this was his “sworn” response to his covenant people. You see, God turned against Israel, not merely to make a point but because he loved them and he had a holy and pure jealously for their allegiance.
Remember that as we continue. God’s judgment in Judges is not ultimately about justice; rather it is his loving, gracious, and faithful response to his covenant people. And remember that it is the same for us. God’s doesn’t put his people through pain and suffering to execute justice because Jesus already took our punishment. Rather, our pain and suffering is always God’s tough love that is for our good.
And that’s what God was doing to Israel. Verses 14–15 say that rather than being invincible against their enemies as they had been during the time of Joshua, Israel became defenseless against foreign attacks and plunderers. They had no power to stand against anyone. Israel thought the way of Baal could take them further than the way of God, but it only brought disaster, as is always the case. But being the covenant Father that God is, he couldn’t stand to just watch his people disintegrate; therefore, vv. 16–19 describe…
III. God’s Grace and Israel’s Stubbornness (vv. 16–19): Notice first…
God’s Grace (vv. 16, 18): Verse 18 concludes by saying that as a covenant Father, God grieved when he heard Israel groaning under the weight of oppression, and he was moved to pity.
It’s important that we recognize what is not said. It doesn’t say that Israel repented and God was obligated to respond, although several accounts in Judges say that Israel cried out to the Lord during their suffering. Rather the narrator tells us that the reason God showed mercy was because of his covenant love and grace.
Therefore, as hard as God was on Israel, he wasn’t primarily exercising justice, because Israel actually deserved far worse than they received. Rather, Judges is a story of God’s tough love for his wayward children by means of oppression as well as a story of the pity he showed by giving them judges.
And so God graciously gave the judges to do 2 things. First, v. 16 states that they relieved Israel of foreign oppression. However, it’s worth noting that this is all they accomplished. The judges successfully pushed Israel’s enemies off their lands, but they never conquered new territories like God had commanded Israel to do.
And second (v. 17), God used the judges to call Israel back to God. However, we will see that few of them did this well, and Israel never really responded to these pleas.
Rather, Israel stubbornly refused God’s grace. Notice how God describes Israel’s idolatry. He compares it to “harlotry” or prostitution. It’s a powerful picture because it again reminds us of Israel’s covenant obligation to God. It’s not just that they made some dumb choices; they abandoned the God who had pledged himself to Israel and had shown grace after grace.
And instead, they ran eagerly into prostitution with an evil perverted system. Verse 17 says they “turned quickly from the ways in which their fathers walked.” And v. 19 adds that when the judges died, they immediately plunged even further into sin than they had before. And so Israel is pictured as a delirious addict enslaved to evil.
And for us Israel’s harlotry gives us a graphic picture of how terrible it is whenever we put another god ahead of our Savior who has given everything to us. When I chase sinful pleasures, I am also playing the harlot. Therefore, if you are tolerating secret sins that you know God condemns, don’t excuse it as a small thing. Understand the depths of your unfaithfulness and repent.
But the picture of harlotry also reminds us of just how foolish our sin is. We look at Israel, and we marvel that they could be so foolish as to run away from their good and loving Father?
And yet how often are we just as foolish? Like Israel, God has been abundantly good to us. He gave us Christ and all of the blessings of the cross. And now he calls us to a life of holiness and purity, which, yes, is often hard and calls for delayed gratification, but we know that God’s will is good and that there is joy in Christ that the world can never match. God is like a faithful spouse filled with pure love.
But sin tugs on our hearts with the promise of immediate gratification, and hides the fact that the end is death. And when we give in, we foolishly exchange the pure, perfect love of Christ for something vile and foolish.
And so as we look with amazement at Israel’s foolishness, lets be challenged to watch our own hearts. May God help us to see the goodness of our God and the perfection of his will, and let’s find our joy in the center of his grace. The passage then concludes by describing Gods response to Israel’s stubborn rebellion. 2:20–3:4 describe…
IV. God’s Tough Love (2:20–3:4)
I love these verses because of what they say about God’s wisdom and foresight. The obvious assumption behind these verses is that if God wanted to, he could have driven all the Canaanites out of the land in days of Joshua, because they were nothing in comparison to God’s strength. And from our limited human perspective, we might think that would be so much better.
Israel could have just settled in and prospered. And if these nations hadn’t been there to tempt Israel with idolatry, maybe they would have remained faithful to him. Don’t we think this way all the time? If I could just eliminate this one hardship life would be so much better, and I could be so much godlier. But God knows better. God knew that Israel needed tough love, and so God didn’t allow Israel to quickly drive the Canaanites out.
3:1–2 tells us that God’s original reason was that the next generations needed some resistance to learn warfare. As is always the case, God’s best classroom is the classroom of pain. He knew Israel needed to be pushed.
But then 2:20–22 and 3:4 say that after Israel’s rebellion, the Canaanites served a second purpose. God used them to test Israel’s loyalty to himself. And this was not so that God could learn something about them, because God already knows every detail about our hearts. Rather, God left the Canaanites so that Israel could see their own hearts and their desperate need for change. The heat would reveal their wickedness, and give God the opportunity to drive them to the light, which in the ultimate sense is Christ.
And isn’t it the same with us? When life is cruising along, I can begin to think I am so spiritual and that I have this Christian thing all figured out. It’s only when hardship comes that I see how much I need to change, and how much I need God’s grace to change. Maybe God is showing you some tough love even now, and you just want it to go away. It’s hard, but know that God is a loving Father and it is for your good. And so trust him and embrace his will, because God’s tough love does far more for my soul than ease ever could.
In conclusion this passage gives us broad perspective through which to view every detail of Judges. It tells us what’s wrong with Israel and what God is trying to do each step of the way. But it also drives home 3 important lessons for us. First…
Recognize the deceitfulness of your heart. The path of sin can never match the perfect path of grace that God has given us in his Word, but that didn’t stop Israel from harlotry and it often doesn’t stop us either. We need to be mindful of the deceitfulness of our hearts and watch them carefully.
Respond to God’s demand for your whole heart. Throughout this text, Israel is pictured as a foolish harlot, and God is pictured as a jealous lover. But it’s not a selfish, insecure jealousy, because he deserves our allegiance, and he desires our good. Therefore, don’t be content with a divided heart. because God’s demands all of you, so drive out every competitor and live for him and him alone.
Rejoice in God’s unfailing tough love. I think we all recognize that a good father who loves his child doesn’t spend his days thinking about how to keep his kids happy with him. No, he spends his days laboring for the good of his child, and he sets up boundaries and penalties that will make his child better. That tough love is essential to his child’s ultimate well-being. Praise the Lord that he extends that same kind of love to us. Let’s rejoice in that love, and let’s respond to that love with faith, love, and obedience.